Recycling bins in the City of London tracked people’s movements for over two months

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City of London staff knew for a week that recycling bins in the local authority were tracking the movements of passers-by, but didn’t put a stop to it until news reports prompted a public outcry.

London-based startup Media Metrica, which also goes by the name Renew, installed tracking devices in a dozen of its internet-connected bins, most of them along a busy street in the City of London. The devices, called Renew Orbs, recorded a unique ID on people’s smartphones in order to track them. Few were aware of the scheme.

Quartz was the first to report about the tracking in a story on August 8. The program was shut down a few days later. Now, our freedom of information request has turned up documents that shed new light on the chronology.

Renew began testing the devices on May 21, which means the tracking went on for two-and-a-half months before it was stopped. Renew CEO Kaveh Memari didn’t tell the City of London about it until a meeting on July 31.

“We were surprised,” a spokesperson for the City told Quartz. “At the meeting, they showed us some data from their website. At least one person on our team thought it was an experiment that was now closed. We asked them to send us an email about it, and we then sent it to our lawyers within one-to-two days to see if it was legal.”

Yet the City didn’t do anything about the program until after Quartz’s story was published. On Friday, August 9, Philip Everett, the authority’s director of environmental services, wrote to Memari:

As you will appreciate, there are potential issues for the City in being involved with data collection technology, albeit it has not been agreed or approved by the City and has only recently come to the City’s attention.

After the weekend, Everett emailed again demanding that Renew “cease all data collection.” He continued:

I have to say I think you approach to the publicity on this is naïve in the extreme. You have clearly initiated and publicised this your when it must have been clear that this would raise all sorts of public anxiety, justified or not, and before you had checked the full legal position or obtained the views of the Information Commissioner or the City. You have therefore put us in an embarrassing position, and potentially prejudiced our positive working relationship with the Information Commissioner.

In having these bins on the street you can only exercise the powers we can exercise, You are there by licence. You have acted in this case without it; the first we heard on this was on 31 July, and we still have not heard from your lawyers the advice they gave to you on its legality, (even for a trial), nor have we had any formal proposal from you so we could check it ourselves.

The tracking program remains shut down. Memari didn’t respond to a request for comment.